In my role at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), I manage a suite of programs that provide resources and educational opportunities for students, parents, and teachers that focus on empowering individuals to stand up in the face of anti-Semitism, bigotry, and hate. In recent years, we have taken a hard look at anti-Semitism in middle schools and high schools and our findings have been alarming.
ADL’s most recent annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, noted that we, “continue to receive a troubling number of complaints about children, adolescents, and teenagers engaging in anti-Semitic behavior, both on and off school grounds. These incidents include physical assaults, threats of violence, and verbal and written taunts promoting anti-Semitic stereotypes or evoking disturbing Holocaust themes.” Sadly, and shockingly, it is common today for students to find swastikas etched into desks or drawn on bathroom doors, stereotypes about Jews having big noses or being cheap and greedy are heard regularly, and using phrases such as “Don’t be such a Jew” or “Stupid Jew” have become almost commonplace.
In fact, recent focus groups with middle and high school students revealed that instances of anti-Jewish remarks and Holocaust “jokes” sometimes actually increase during and immediately after curricular units on the Holocaust. One student shared, “I received comments on ask.fm [an anonymous social media site] calling me a dirty Jew, JAP [Jewish American Princess], and worst of all, saying I should burn in the oven with the rest of the Jews. I was incredibly disturbed and worried that there was someone who was so anti-Semitic that they would post something so threatening to me.”
So, what is going on here? What are we seeing with these findings?
If we are teaching effectively about the Holocaust, how is it that students are not making the connection between their own actions and the importance of stopping bias and bigotry before it escalates? In our Bearing Witness programs with Catholic school educators, we speak with teachers about how teaching about the Holocaust necessitates context. It is helpful if teachers guide their students in seeing the complexity of this event as part of a bigger conversation about historical and contemporary anti-Semitism, as well as other forms of bias and bigotry in our world today.
Anti-Semitism, bias, and bigotry existed for millennia before the Holocaust and did not end with the defeat of the Nazis. Rather than seeing anti-Semitism as one small component in the history of the Holocaust, it can instead be helpful to think about the Holocaust as one small piece in the history of anti-Semitism. In this way, we can help students to recognize that they must play a role in combatting this hatred that continues to be present in our lives today, and empower them to take a stance against contemporary manifestations of bias and prejudice.
In this time of increasing divisiveness in our country, when people are targeted because of who they are—their gender, religion, national origin, etc.—it is more important than ever that educators integrate the important lessons about the Holocaust with teaching about concepts of prejudice and hate today. Echoes and Reflections has excellent resources in Lesson 9: Perpetrators, Collaborators, and Bystanders and a new resource on Contemporary Anti-Semitism, that encourage students to consider the importance of taking action when they see bigotry and prejudice exhibited in their own lives.
As teachers think about how best to teach about the Holocaust, and to raise these difficult and complicated topics with their students, I also recommend these 10 Planning Implementation Guidelines and 10 Approaches to Help you teach from Echoes and Reflections. While we can never be fully sure how our students may react to the content, these guidelines can be useful to help set the stage for a thoughtful and respectful learning experience.
Let’s Have a Discussion! How do you address these complex issues with your students and bring them “safely in and safely out”?
Naomi Mayor is the Director of Campus and Community Education Programs for the Anti-Defamation League where she develops new curriculum resources and training materials to address anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias at universities and in schools.